The Mazda MX-5 is better than ever, a distillation of the sports car that has matured into a brilliant little roadster

The Mazda MX-5. An industry stalwart and one of those cars so iconic it defines the small roadster itself, as it has done for 30 years. One might be forgiven for thinking that something with an ethos this old might feel out of touch with our modern world of electrification and SUVs, but the MX-5 is instead a shining beacon of affordable fun, with low running costs and, finally, some real class to its powertrains and design.

This ‘ND’ generation is the fourth since the car’s first introduction in 1989, and despite the changing ecosystem around it, the MX-5 steadfastly remains a two-seater, rear-wheel-drive roadster with a longitudinally mounted, naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine (although an RF model with a folding hardtop is also available).

Performance and 0-100kmh time

As of the 2019 model year update late last year, Mazda introduced a heavily updated 2-litre four-cylinder engine. Overall the engine is similar to the last one, but now produces a more substantial 135kW, and revs 500rpm harder at the top end too.

This extra performance is not only by feel, but on paper the numbers are now far more impressive too, the new 2-litre reaching 100km/h in 6.5sec, a 0.4sec improvement over the previous 2-litre model. But the new 500rpm-worth of revs is just the start of the new 2-litre’s improvements, as rather than being strained, the new engine relishes revs, even if it lacks the outright, hard-hitting top-end punch of a VTEC. It sounds much better too, with a twin-cam engine note under hard acceleration that evokes classic naturally aspirated sounds one might usually associate with days gone by.

Combine this with the MX-5’s lightweight chassis and small footprint and the new 2-litre models feels genuinely quick in a way the previous versions never did. Build some revs and drop the clutch and it will rip superbly controlled burnouts, and this is an MX-5 remember, not an M3… in the wet, this hooliganism is multiplied.

The 1.5-litre car dismisses the 0-100km/h sprint in 8.3sec, while top speed is 204kmh. But the 1.5’s performance differs more than the numbers suggest, feeling revvy and fun, but undeniably slow. The 1.5-litre car needs working – it’s particularly noticeable on steeper hills when you’ll need a downchange to maintain momentum, unlike the 2-litre car which charges up unhindered.

Being heavier it’s no surprise the RF is marginally slower than the soft-top version. The extra 40kg that the 1.5 MX-5 carries around means that it accelerates from 0-100kmh in 8.6sec – 0.3sec slower than the regular car.

Engine and gearbox

Both of the MX-5’s engines are from Mazda’s current selection of Skyactiv units, but they have both been revised for use in the sports car. The old, entry-level Mk3 MX-5 used a 1.8-litre MZR engine, but that has been replaced by a 1.5-litre motor that weighs 14kg less. Compared to this engine’s use elsewhere (it’s available in the Mazda 2 supermini), it features revised cam timing, lighter rotating parts, a custom steel crankshaft and new intake and exhaust systems, while retaining the 4-2-1 exhaust manifold.

The 1.5-litre MX-5s dip under the magic ton at 975kg without a driver (2-litre cars weigh an extra 55kg), which helps to offset the rather effete 111lb ft of torque, generated at a lofty 4800rpm. With peak power of 96kW generated at 7000rpm, it’s obvious that this engine will need to be worked hard. And so it proves, but as long as your expectations aren’t set too high it has plenty of appeal.

The new 2-litre, as mentioned previously, has undergone a substantial update on the previous unit, with a nuanced and technical approach, such as delicate weight savings to the pistons and conrods, revised camshafts, exhaust valves, injectors, throttle valves and a new intake. All of these subtle changes make a huge difference though, with the new engine having far more urgency at high revs, leaping to its 7500rpm red line with real verve. When still box-fresh, these motors have a tendency to feel a little tinny and tight, but with miles the engine really loosens up and feels every one of its 135kW.

Both engines share the same six-speed manual transmission, which has a wonderfully short, mechanical action. Directly poking straight out of the transmission, there’s an acute physical connection between the gearbox and your left hand, passing through vibrations and movements as the whole powertrain moves on its mountings. This is by no means a criticism, but a pleasant reminder of what is becoming a very rare combination of a longitudinally mounted, rear-driven sports car with a manual transmission.

The box’s ratios feel much better suited to the bigger, torquier 2-litre engine. You spend much more time trying to keep the revs in the very top portion of its range in the 1.5, so if a gear causes the revs to drop too far the smaller engine’s performance deficiencies become glaringly apparent.

But the wonderful gear change and responsive engine, matched by excellently spaced pedals, mean that changing gear is a pleasure in itself – especially heel-and-toe downchanges. Although you have to stir the ’box constantly in the 1.5, it’s no real chore to do so. In fact, you make almost as many changes with the 2-litre, just for the fun of it.

There is an automatic gearbox available, and it comes with steering wheel-mounted paddles, but it is only available on the RF.

Ride and Handling

Much like its rivals the Toyota GT86 and Subaru BRZ, the Mk4 MX-5 has been passionately designed and developed around a theoretical concept: in this case, to offer interaction and a sense of speed and fun for everyone. As part of that, the car has been set to initially roll heavily when a steering input is made, and to lean on the outside tyres. The settings also cause it to pitch and squat a little more than you’d expect when the brakes and throttle are used too. This may well give a strong impression of speed, but it can be disconcerting because the initial impression is of a wallowing, somewhat vague car.

The MX-5’s real limits as a challenging performance car start to show when the going gets rough though. It’s all down to the chassis, which for all its lightness suffers in terms of stiffness, or rather the lack of it. Barrel down a broken B-road and the structure shudders and wobbles, as the chassis struggles to contain the impacts coming in from the suspension.

The springs really should iron out smaller bumps and road intrusions, but instead the brittle dampers transmit this noise into the cabin. Wheel control is also compromised, as the wheels have a tendency to crash into road irregularities.

This MX-5 is the first of its ilk to use electric power assistance for the steering, and while the engineers have succeeded in making it accurate, predictably it doesn’t possess the more natural weighting and progressive responses of the best hydraulic racks – or indeed its sweet-steering predecessors.

An acceptance of the car’s limitations, plus a calm, precise driving style, suit the MX-5 much better. Only 2-litre cars have the limited-slip differential (and a strut brace), as it’s the only one of the two that you’d expect to have enough grunt to worry the rear tyres. Actually, the excessive roll means that the 1.5’s inside rear wheel is easily unloaded and has a tendency to spin in tight corners, even in the dry.

The 2-litre won’t slide around extravagantly in the dry, and the large body movements soak up tamer attempts to unsettle the car, but if you’re committed enough, or on a circuit, it will transition into oversteer cleanly. The MX-5’s more potent top end also adds a new layer of throttle adjustability, the engine more easily overwhelming the rear grip threshold.

The soft suspension does make gathering the slide up a less elegant proposition though, and extreme forces can still confuse the chassis. This isn’t just an issue when being a hooligan; braking late, high cornering speeds and large amounts of throttle can also create a disjointed and scruffy driving experience. The lack of an LSD in the 1.5 means it is even more unpredictable if you do provoke it into a slide. Having said that, it’s possible to corner at neutral or mild oversteering angles at sane speeds in either version.

Dial back your efforts and calm your inputs and both can be very satisfying to drive, but it’s easy to push too hard and lose the rhythm that makes them so pleasing. On unfamiliar back roads, where you aren’t confident of the severity or direction of the next corner, where you need a car that will respond just as you expect, the MX-5 is in its element. Without committing to a corner too eagerly you can get on the throttle early to manipulate the rear axle and constantly adjust your line right through to the exit.

Sport specification brings Bilstein dampers on the 2-litre version, and this is undoubtedly the most potent machine in the range. However, they do make for a firm ride, which particularly on urban roads sends a tremor through the MX-5’s structure. In fact, all models – despite Mazda’s best efforts – betray their open body in the way they react to poor road surfaces, although the ride improves greatly at speed. The fancy dampers provide more control and allow you to drive the MX-5 harder, but it’s still possible to push it out of its comfort zone even on the road.

Mazda has gone to great lengths to make the RF feel exactly the same as the roadster to drive. The extra weight of the folding roof has been compensated for by using revised springs, dampers, anti-roll bars and rear suspension geometry.

The bulkier roof has also increased the car’s structural rigidity, but Mazda felt that it changed the balance of the car too significantly so one of the lower chassis braces has been altered to allow more twist. Despite sounding counter-intuitive, there’s no denying these changes have worked as it really does feel very much the same to drive.

Driving the two cars back-to-back reveals the RF has a slightly stronger shell. However, rough roads will still transmit vibrations into the cabin. It also resists roll ever so slightly more, but it really is practically identical to drive.

It took us a little time to appreciate the latest MX-5. It’s rare that a modern performance-orientated car rolls so much in corners, and we were initially disillusioned with its lack of focus in a market where even entry-level hot hatches are razor-sharp and blisteringly quick. That, of course, is deliberate on Mazda’s part – the MX-5 is designed to bring driving pleasure to the masses, rather than chase lap times.

Those body movements make you feel like you’re cornering hard, even when you’re not. Drive flat-out and you’ll be left wanting more control, but drive enthusiastically down a familiar stretch of road and you feel completely involved in the experience. Helping this are the recent updates found under the bonnet, the 2-litre engine having received a thorough overhaul, adding power, and more importantly revs to the package. The raspy exhaust, and responses unsullied by turbocharging, plus a fantastically snappy gear shift all combine to make even a drive to the shops an experience worth savouring.

And you can drop the roof on a sunny day, which adds an extra dimension that few others at the Mazda’s price point can match. For those who insist on a tin-top there is also the MX-5 RF with its electric folding targa-style roof, which adds the looks of a coupe but retains many of the roadster’s attributes and quirks.